Chicago Expands Blue Bins, Still a Tale of Two Cities on Recycling

When Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel took office in May of 2011, Chicago’s recycling program was the source of some embarrassment to outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley. Despite spending millions of dollars of public money since the mid-1990s, the city’s blue bag program had failed to reduce contamination or educate the public on correct sorting of recyclables. During Mayor Daley’s final term, the blue bags were scrapped in favor of a blue bin program, but costs prevented the city from giving blue bins to more than a small fraction of single-family households.  By the time Mayor Daley left office, the city’s rate of recycling wastes (excepting construction and demolition wastes) was mired in the single digits. During Mayor Daley’s final year in office, the Chicago Reader‘s Mick Dumke recounted the long, troubled history of municipal recycling services in the city under the headline “Why Can’t Chicago Recycle?”

When Mayor Emanuel took office, he promised that things would be different. During his campaign, he responded to a question about Chicago’s lack of recycling with the following answer:

“I will enforce the City’s solid waste recycling ordinance.

Improving and expanding curbside recycling is a top priority of mine. Picking up garbage in Chicago is too expensive and inefficient and must be reformed. Recycling has to be part of a comprehensive plan to overhaul the City’s garbage collection system, particularly in light of the massive deficits in the City’s budget. I am committed to making this a long-term project so that all Chicago residents have access to curbside recycling, but the time frame for implementing the expansion will have to be determined based upon the availability of revenue and in the context of the City’s budget crisis.”

Two months into his term, Mayor Emanuel unveiled the first step in attempting to provide all Chicago residents with access to curbside recycling, announcing an expansion of blue carts to 20,000 additional households by November of 2011, with further expansion to come. To offset costs, collection from the blue carts would come from dividing the city up into six collection areas, with the massive private vendor Waste Management (previously the city’s partner in the failed blue bag program) collecting from three areas, Midwest Metal Management (a division of Sims) collecting from two areas, and the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation collecting from one area.

The idea was that the three entities were participating in a “managed competition” program, and the goal of the program was to reduce the high costs of recycling. The competition would take place for six months (starting in November 2011), and the city would assess its results as it moved to expand recycling services.

In April of 2012, the city announced that the competition had reduced the costs of the recycling program. The city claimed that blue cart collection had cost the city $4.77 for every blue cart collected before the managed competition program, and those costs were lowered to $3.28 per bin in the area collected by the Department of Streets and Sanitation and to $2.70 a cart in the areas collected by the private vendors. Mayor Emanuel also promised to complete the rollout of blue bins to single-family dwellings by the end of 2014.

This week, Mayor Emanuel followed up on that promise, detailing plans to deliver 72,000 more blue bins, bringing the number of households served by the program to 600,000 citywide.  At the announcement he remarked, “With the final phase of the blue cart recycling expansion, Chicago is no longer the tale of two cities when it comes to recycling. “Recycling is now a reality for every neighborhood in every community, and we have made Chicago a greener, more environmentally friendly city.”

The mayor overstates his case.  Blue bins are going to houses throughout the city, but hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans do not live in houses.  As WLS-TV noted, “twice a week, the blue carts are collected at residences in single family homes and buildings with fewer than four units.”  Larger, multi-dwelling buildings do not receive blue bins.  The Burke-Hansen ordinance, law in Chicago for more than twenty years, requires such buildings to hire private vendors to collect recyclables.  The ordinance, however, was never enforced during the Daley administration and thus far has not been enforced during the first two years of the Emanuel administration. No specifics were given this week about how Chicago might improve recycling services in large buildings.

Chicagoans have more recycling services today than they had two years ago.  But Chicago still has a tale of two cities when it comes to recycling.

Disclosure: I serve on the board of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, which advocates environmentally and fiscally sound management of solid waste. The CRC has advocated for expanded curbside collection and more transparent disclosure from Chicago on the rates of recycling and economics of city programs.  That said, the opinions expressed in this post are solely mine and are not intended as endorsements by any group or institution.

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